I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.
At the best of times I have a tendency to vanish into computer games for weeks at a time with a muffled squeak, surfacing briefly only to whinge about the bloody cliff racers sneaking up behind me again (Morrowind), or those horrible creatures who hang from the ceiling by hooks and fall on me with violent suddenness and maniacal laughter (Bioshock). I do become immersed in these things, and need to dedicate myself to them more or less exclusively for several weeks until they work their way out of my system and I can go about my more or less normal life. I have to say, though, that the straightforward fantasy FPS of Oblivion and Skyrim, or even the deeply moody and atmospheric world of Bioshock, have nothing on the seductive appeal of an actual computer role-playing game. Dragon Age: Origins is my first experience of this genre, and it’s apparently tailor-made to addict me instantly and utterly to its environment. While the political landscape, world-building and quest narratives are well written and compelling, really I have to admit that the intrinsic appeal is in the interaction with companions.
You have a whole range of companion interactions open to you, depending not only on how you decide to play the actual interchanges with the individual companions, but on how you choose to play various quest decisions in the game as a whole. Realistically enough, some companions are goody-two-shoes and conservative, others are more anarchic and subversive, and they have their own commitments and goals and allegiances in the game world as a whole. Within this framework you can establish a wide spectrum of interactions: working relationships, comradeships, mentorships, pragmatic co-operations, goofy love stories, philosophical debates, cynical sexual interactions, grand romances – the whole caboodle. My personal gaming style is tilted towards co-operation and empathy, and I appear to be (a) fatally monogamous and (b) fatally unable to turn down romantic approaches from likeable characters; as a result, my games tend to play out as a love story with tragic implications, one that just happens to be taking place in the middle of an invasion and a civil war.
The secret of actually enjoying Dragon Age character interactions is apparently to [Esc] through the incredibly lame and badly-written sex scenes. Because, pixelated naked flesh and badly-rendered gestures of intimacy, aargh. Uncanny valley. That being said, however, I have to say it’s a fairly substantial world away from the Fable ethos of “manoeuvre object of potential affection into vicinity of bed and ply them with gifts until screen blanks suggestively”. Dragon Age‘s inter-character interactions are mostly well written; you can increase a party member’s approval of you by making quest choices which groove with their particular moral leanings, or by having intense and empathetic conversations with them about personal issues and goals. (And the choices aren’t always clear-cut or obvious, it’s a reasonable stab at realistic complexity and ramification). You can, in fact, also give them gifts, but it has to be the right gift, and there are bonus points if you’ve done the chatting beforehand and give them the right gift consciously rather than by accident. Bits of the later-stage romances lean into the sappy and slightly juvenile territory, but by and large most of them don’t, and there are lovely touches both of humour and of sweetness.
These character interactions are incredibly compelling on a number of levels, not least of which are my own tendencies towards roleplaying, empathy and immersion. The mostly good writing really helps; these are real people, with real issues, and their personalities and choices tend (generally, although not infallibly) towards the coherent and believable. The voice acting is another huge pull-in, as many of the actors are adept at constructing vivid personalities. The strange muteness of your own character is one of the ways in which the game possibly falls down (obviously they can’t realistically voice your dialogue when you have so many possible identities and ways of reacting, although they do manage it in Dragon Age II), but conversely your own silence actually works as a space into which you can project your own responses. I find I talk to the screen, and the companions, a lot – I do when playing most computer games, but it’s particularly exaggerated in Dragon Age, and it feels a lot more like a conversation.
I identify with these people; I want them to like me, I enjoy both the conversations with them (and their weird/sad/troubled backstories) and the way those personalities and stories ramify out into my understanding of their tactics in actual play. And I really, really like the way that the quest-narrative outcomes hinge and morph according to your companion allegiances and goals. You’re not just hitting the big bad with a sword until it’s dead, who and how is doing the hitting is instrumental not just in the fate of the world, but potentially in your personal romantic fate as well.
My view of this is necessarily skewed because I’ve been playing only as a female character, and within the constraints of my own gaming style; I’d probably have more, and different, things to say after playing a male viewpoint, or as less Lawful Good. But if you’re playing a female character it’s actually very difficult not to romance Alistair: he’s particularly instrumental in the plot, he’s an incredibly easy sell if you’re a goody-two-shoes player, and he’s also constructed as enough of a sweet and goofy individual that turning him down feels like kicking puppies. (Internet research suggests that there is a voluble and dedicated core of female players who also end up taking exactly this route, and have constructed a whole fandom as a result). He’s a far more interesting and detailed romance than the fairly straightforward sex-options offered by other companions; he’s also an interesting option if you have a human noble origin, as your political goals and his end up being fairly entwined. If, however, you’re in a romance with him, you have no good choices at the end. You are encouraged to construct the romance with him in the mode of “one true love forever”, and one of the better outcomes for the game is for him to end up as king. As a human noble you can also manipulate things to marry him, and be One True Loves forever, knowing full well that as two Grey Wardens the chances of you having offspring are vanishingly remote, thus sparking off the whole civil war/succession debate all over again once he dies. The game’s construction demands that you examine your own motives quite significantly, and make a very deliberate choice between selfishness and self-sacrifice; it makes the self-sacrifice surprisingly hard, and if you go for the selfishness, you know damned well that you are railroading Alistair himself into it, and he doesn’t fully support you.
Thus the whole romance thing, at least in this particular set of choices, and the conflicts it creates, is really surprisingly sophisticated; while you could, I suppose, choose to play romance in terms of a basic notion of conquest, box-ticking or simple hur-hur-hur response to the awkwardly idealised animated bodies the game depicts, really that wastes huge tracts of possibilities. Most importantly, the romance options infuse the game’s fairly straightforward martial, political and quest motifs with a layer of complexity and nuance which elevate them way beyond simply finishing the boss battle. Finishing the boss battle is fun and satisfying, but it’s this kind of layering which actually convinces you that on some faintly real level you’re saving the world.